Mentor Text Wednesday: The Nebraska Project

Mentor Text: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska

Writing Techniques:

  • Lyrical Analysis
  • Academic writing of analysis
  • Looking at tone and mood
  • Looking at voice
  • Writing lyrical poetry
  • Writing narrative poetry
  • Pairing writing with other creative work


Recently, I found myself thinking about dream projects. Like many teachers, I have some crazy ideas rolling around the ol’ noggin. There are a bunch of them that require more hours or dollars than I have. And there are a bunch of other ones that I just never seem to realize for various reasons. We’re all like that, I’m sure.

I pitched a proposal to some other teachers that we sit and discuss these projects, and how we could realize them, and support each other in doing this. Between pitching the idea and meeting, I realized something. The only thing stopping us from doing these things is us. If we’ve got a crazy dream project, and supportive administrators, we should just do them.

Which meant that I took The Nebraska Project out of the notebook and into the classroom. See, I’ve long loved this album of Springsteen’s. It’s some of his finest songwriting, and is just so tonally together. There’s lots of legend around it’s creation which make it something special. I’ve pulled the song “Highway Patrolman” into class many times in the past, which is part of what made me want to go deeper with the album. I teach thematically, and the album’s themes of challenge, and dealing with the hard times of the late 70’s and early 80’s made it a perfect fit for my Grade 10s’ study of Heroism & Facing Adversity.


I decided that we would embark on a full study of the album, all ten songs. Continue reading


Coaching the Overwhelmed Writer

I stumbled upon Austin Kleon’s work a few years ago while struggling to support writers through the process of creative theft. They were working on fan fiction, and many of them were having a hard time distinguishing stealing with integrity from…..well….simply stealing.

Over the years, I’ve come to view plagiarism as something of a developmental phase, so when I encounter it in my work with students, I try to work them through it and beyond it by providing specific strategies. This is how I fell in love with Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. Here, he shares a list of ten things he wished he had learned when he was starting out:

Continue reading

Making “Writer” a Label Students Can Wear – Three Ideas

Before mentors texts became the flexible frame onto which I could hang all of my writing instruction, I had nothing to do with all of the cool articles I stumbled across. When I found a piece of writing that connected with my curriculum, I would most often say, “Hey! Cool!”, print it or clip it, and let it sit on my desk for a few weeks before putting it in a file folder in my desk, never to be seen again.

On occasion, I would copy it, pass it out to my students, and ask them to read it. They would, and we would all kind of nod at each other when they were finished, crumpling the paper and shoving it into their backpacks. I would feel good that they had been exposed to the article, regardless of the fact that none of us knew the real purpose of them reading it.

Thankfully, mentor texts found me. And my first thought these days when finding a smart article is, “How can my students use this in their writing? Can I make this a thing?”

 As my students round the corner toward the end of their year, I have been looking for something to help them put a cap on their writing year. As they polish, revise, and finish their portfolios, I am searching for small writing projects that will help them synthesize  all that they have learned about themselves as writers — their identity, their process, their passions.

Most of all, I want them to leave my class confidently wearing the label of “writer” (a phrase I’m repurposing a bit from Donalyn Miller’s recent Book Love Foundation podcast interview), and I want to help them do this by inviting them to join  the conversation of real writers. 


Last weekend, I found three series in The Guardian — my new favorite source for writing about books — to help with this end-of-year need for writing closure. (The wonderful thing about finding a series you love is that there is no need to search for other mentor texts to pair with it; you have a ready-made mentor text cluster, offering your students myriad variations on a theme.)

I plan to offer all three as options for my students to reflect on who they have become as writers this year  — and to add to their final writing portfolio:

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Mentor Text Wednesday – Found Poetry: The Online Version

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Mentor Text: WFM: Allergic to Pine-Sol, Am I the Only One by Melissa Barrett

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetry (specifically found poetry)
  • Manipulating existing text for creative purposes
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creative response
  • Editing
  • The importance of a title


In the spirit of Poetry Month, I decided to commit the remainder of April’s columns to poetic mentor texts. Which, of course, meant that I needed to find them. Luckily, I keep a stack of poetry anthologies near my desk at work!

I cracked open The Best American Poetry 2015, and flipped to all the poems that I had flagged for use in my classroom. That brought me to Melissa Barrett’s poem, which not only had I flagged, but I had stuck a note in the book outlining my plan for that poem.

Barrett’s poem is made up of lines from Craigslist personal ads. I was fascinated right away. I have this distinct memory of a teacher telling me about a beat poet who wrote poetry using snatches of conversation he overheard while in the park in San Fransisco. I have a clipping on my bulletin board at home from the book section of the paper about a book of poetry called Forge, in which Kevin McPherson Eckhoff collected lines from public computers by cutting and pasting what had been entered by the previous user. This notion of “repurposing” others’, well, unpoetic writing fascinates me. Continue reading

Introducing Argumentative Writing with Infographics

Like Rebekah, Allison, and probably many of you, I am a big fan of Kelly Gallagher’s work. In fact, a colleague and I structured our freshman curriculum to mirror the writing scaffold in his book Write Like This: our first freshman writing assignments encourage students to “express and reflect” in personal narratives, assignments throughout the year ask students to “inform and explain,” “evaluate and judge,” “inquire and explore,” “analyze and interpret,” and now, one of the last assignments of the year, a persuasive research-based speech, requires students to “take a stand and propose a solution” about an issue that matters to them.

As part of the assignment, students work with research databases in our library, many of which have helpful “Pro/Con” features that make “taking a stand” with appropriate evidence pretty easy. While working with students on the assignment last year, however, I started to realize that my approach was too prescriptive; my schedule for the assignment asked students to decide where they stood on an issue before beginning their research. So much for encouraging open minds! Thankfully, I had the good work of Kelly Gallagher, Rebekah O’Dell, and Allison Marchetti to help me develop a new, more organic approach to beginning our research process.

In his most recent book, In the Best Interest of Students, Gallagher, citing the work of George Hillocks, reminds teachers that “Argument doesn’t start with a claim; argument starts with data” (89). Gallagher provides a useful example to illustrate his point, but that first sentence was all I needed to set me down a new path. Inspired by Allison and Rebekah’s use of raw data for notebook time, Rebekah’s infographic study, and the great infographics many of you have shared on Twitter, I introduced our argumentative writing assignment with a day of infographic exploration. 


This infographic inspired a lot of discussion in my class earlier this year. What research questions might it prompt for your students?

Continue reading

Finding Writing Time Where Time Doesn’t Exist

When I poll my students about workshop, a common theme that always emerges is wanting more time. Longer notebook times to nurture new ideas. More time to write and confer. (They never beg for longer minilessons 😄)

But when you’re working with 46 minute periods like we are, there’s only so much you can do. This is the rhythm we usually fall into:

Introduction & Announcements: 2-3 minutes

Notebook Time: 5-7 minutes

Minilesson: 10-15 minutes

Writing time: 15+


But no matter how tight the schedule seems, when our kids ask for more writing time, we owe it to them to make more writing time.

What would it take to pull some extra time out of our magician’s hat? Below I’ve presented some rough draft thinking about how we might find class time where time doesn’t exist.

  • A true soft start

A soft start is an activity that students fall into as they enter the classroom. The momentum of the class builds as more students enter and begin the work of the day. Ideas for soft starts include 10-15 minutes of reading, notebook time, and other quiet, individual warm-up activities.

My school’s schedule actually has a nice soft start built in — no bell to initiate the beginning of class. I make it hard, however, when I wait for every student to arrive, even the stragglers, to introduce the day’s lesson.

When implemented as a hard start, notebook time can absorb a lot of valuable minutes because it also involves things that are not notebook time — students entering the classroom, unzipping their bags, sharpening pencils, saying hello, getting settled.

What if…

If we implement a soft start, and expect every student to produce x amount of notebook time pages before the end of the week, students will write at their own pace (some may add to their pages at night if they arrive to class late or have a slow start), and notebook time will just be notebook time, taking no more than 5-7 minutes.

  • Alternate extended notebook time with extended writing and conferring time

As students dig into their writing projects, they show less patience for notebook time — they want to nurture the ideas in their pieces, rather than thinking up new ideas every day.

Conversely, during the beginning stages of a writing study, notebook time can be extremely helpful to writers who are gathering information and honing ideas.

What if…

So what if we made notebook time more or less prominent depending on where students are in the study? Here is a possible schedule for phasing notebook time in and out:

Gradual Release of Notebook Time for 4-week Writing Study

Week 1 of study Extended Notebook Time/Conferring + Lessons
Week 2 of study Extended Notebook Time/Conferring + Lessons
Week 3 of study Lessons + Conferring/Writing
Week 4 of study Lessons + Conferring/Writing
  • Make the main thing the main thing

Problems with time occur when we try to do too much for too long. The fact is, we can’t do everything in every class period. We have to make choices.

What if…

So what if we alternate notebook time and conferring every day to allow more time for the most important work writers do — writing and conferring about their writing?

The schedule below features one major activity per class period while always dedicating some time for conferring.

Day A Day B
Notebook Time: 15-20 minutes Lesson: 10 minutes
Lesson: 10 minutes Writing + Conferring: 30+ minutes
Writing + Conferring: 15 minutes
  •  Extended study of one notebook time invitation (5 Day Study)

This idea came to me in a Georgia Heard workshop I attended in November 2014. Heard presented the idea of “living with a poem for a week,” where students study a poem over a period of a week, uncovering more layers each day. Let’s call it 5 Day Notebook Time Study.

What if…

What if we introduce one notebook time invitation at the beginning of each week instead of a new one each day? This would give the illusion of more writing time because writers are deepening and refining one small writing project over an entire week, rather than spinning something new in their notebooks every day.

Here is a possible outline for a 5 Day Study with a mentor poem (adapted from Heard):

Monday: Appreciate the poem

Tuesday: Explore the poem

Wednesday: Respond to the poem

Thursday: Revise and extend response to the poem

Friday: Share and reflect on responses

Here are Georgia Heard’s suggestions for Day 1 — appreciating the poem:

  1. Read poem twice.
  2. During the second reading, ask students to circle parts they find intriguing and words/parts that they find confusing.
  3. After you read the poem twice, ask students to read it silently to themselves and visualize the imagery in the poem. Students can sketch their visualization next to the poem.
  4. Ask students to move into small groups to discuss their first impressions of the poem.
  5. For homework, students can write down one discussion question for the next day.

And here are her suggestions for Day 3 — responding to the poem:

  • create a short video or podcast
  • choose to write their own poem
  • “talk back” to the speaker
  • write a personal essay
  • illustrate the poem
  • enact the poem, either alone or in a small groups, presenting the lines or a paraphrase dramatically
  • spine reading/writing – cracking it open

I tried this approach with my 8th and 9th graders this week, and the results were wonderful! We studied “Traveling through the Dark” by William Stafford in 9th grade and “My Papa’s Waltz”in 8th. Here are a few of the responses my students created:

From left to right: 1) Caroline B. used another poem we studied earlier in the year, “The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz ,as a mentor text to write a poem from the perspective of the speaker in “Traveling through the Dark” 2) Max C. created a comic strip illustrating the arc of the narrative in the poem “My Papa’s Waltz” 3) Lydia C. wrote a letter to the speaker/main character in “Traveling” 4)Hannah C. illustrated a significant moment in “Traveling…”

There is so much potential with 5 Day Notebook Time Studies! We could study a piece of data for five days — study, ask questions, do research, write something, extend and revise. We could play with an old notebook time writing for five days — identify a piece of writing you want to go back to, make a revision plan, revise, share with a peer, revise more. What other ideas do you have?

  • True MINIlessons

I’m guilty of teaching minilessons that aren’t so MINI. It’s hard to keep them small — I just want to squeeze all the good information and techniques and possibilities into the presentation! But after learning about demonstration notebooks from Kate and Maggie, I wonder if some of that extra stuff might be better suited to individual and small group conferences?

What if…

What we presented 1-2 main points or techniques in a minilesson, and then made rounds with demonstration notebooks to offer more possibilities to the writers that need more possibilities? Not only would this shave time off the minilesson, but students might be more receptive to the techniques we’re sharing if they are personalized through conferences.

  • Post (don’t read) your announcements

I begin every class with announcements and goals for the day. Do I need to? Yes and no. My announcements are visible behind me on a color-coded PowerPoint. Students can read them. And they rarely change from week to week. Do I need to have them there every day? Yes. Do I need to talk about them? No.

What if…

We rely on visual announcements and cut out announcements altogether? Once students are used to the routines of the class, using visuals for information, etc. we can cut back on announcements and put back minutes into writing time.


Today I’m going to try a soft start, push past announcements, and move right into the minilesson.

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My PowerPoint slide for Notebook Time today

Because my students aren’t used to soft starts, it may take them a few days to settle into this new kind of beginning.

I challenge you to try one new thing this week to add minutes back into your students’ writing time. If it seems impossible, tell yourself what we tell our students about their writing when they’re trying to do too much — keep the heart and cut the fat. Surely there are things you can let go of.

How do you shave time off less important activities and give it back to writing? What are your strategies for soft starts and other time-saving strategies? Please share!

–Allison @allisonmarchett


Mentor Text Wednesday – TV Poetry

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.55.05 AMMentor Text: The Twin Peaks poetry of Liz Worth

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetry
  • Manipulating existing text for creative purposes
  • Pop culture analysis
  • Creative response
  • Editing


I’ve already admitted to how I feel about magazines in this column. They’re these wonderful collections of information and inspiration that call to me on a regular basis. I read them, flagging things that will wind up in the classroom.

When I decided that I would dedicate the remaining posts of April to poetry mentor texts, I realized that I flew out of my classroom on Friday afternoon without any poetry books at all. Which left me wracking my brain for a possible poetic mentor text for the column.

Magazines to the rescue, specifically Maissonneuve, quite possibly my favorite Canadian magazine. I looked at the current issue sitting on my desk, and remembered that somewhere, I have an issue with a sticky note poking out, marking Liz Worth’s Twin Peaks poetry. (Full disclosure, I think that issue may be in the general vicinity of my desk at school.) I remember reading those poems, and thinking, as I often do, “I can use this in class…”

Twin Peaks Lemire

Twin Peaks Fan Art by Jeff Lemire

Luckily, I was able to find Worth’s blog. I spent some time reading the poetry there, and though I never watched Twin Peaks, I found the poetry and the process Worth used fascinating. As it reads on her blog: “Rewriting Twin Peaks scripts as poetry. Each poem will be put together using only words and phrases from its specified script.” Continue reading

Drop Everything and Play: Creating Opportunities for Creativity

When Students Fear a New Text

In fourth grade, right before we were about to step onstage for the yearly choir concert, my teacher told the class to picture the audience as giant pickles. She explained that giant pickles are funny and that if we could laugh before the concert, we wouldn’t be nervous. Of course, we had all heard about picturing the audience in its underwear, but that line had become worn out. The success of the pickle picturing plan was its novelty in addition to its effectiveness. We weren’t scared of performing because we were performing for giant pickles. It was new, and it worked.

Today, as my students work to see themselves as writers, I draw on my fourth grade teacher’s advice. How can I make the oftentimes daunting task of writing new and exciting? What can I do to demonstrate to my students that new texts are not tedious and should never be sources of fear?

On the first day of analyzing a new text, my students are hard at work charting the text. As a group, we have broken it into digestible chunks, and now, we are completing a triple-entry journal that will act as the pre-writing for our argumentative analysis essays. Our goal is to dive into the brain of the author to figure out how he is trying to persuade us. As effective as this is, it has also been done before. It is the equivalent of an audience in its underwear.

Drop Everything and Play

Dropping everything and playing is the pickle in the audience. The goal is to transform the fear of a new text into an opportunity for pure creativity.

More specifically, when students drop everything and play with a text, they are given complete creative license to do anything they want with their copies of the text.

Continue reading

Writer’s Telephone – an Information-Gathering, Idea-Nuturing Strategy

I feel like I’ve been engaged in a pedagogical ancestry project recently — mapping my teaching forebears through generations.

In floods of professional books, blogs, Tweets, and chats, these ideals into which I have become so deeply entrenched sometimes lose their original source. Like a game of

educational Telephone, the message gets translated and retranslated, filtered through multiple voices and perspectives. I need the original message. I need to get back to the roots of this family tree.

I like to imagine Henry Louis Gates passing me books across my desk. “You got mentor texts from Katie Wood Ray,” he’d say, passing me Study Driven. “You got flash drafting from Lucy Calkins.”  And then he’d pass me Learning by Teaching and A Writer Teaches Writing: “But your teaching bloodline begins here — Donald Murray.”

As I dive deep into Murray, as I get back to the roots, I am learning so much that I didn’t know I was missing.

Among the many, many aha moments I have had in my Murray-centered travels is the necessity of dedicating time for students to nurture ideas and gather information before any writing takes place. He writes, “Few teachers have ever allowed adequate time for prewriting, that essential stage in the writing process which precedes a completed first draft…Writing teachers, however, should give careful attention to what happens between the moment the writer receives an idea or an assignment and the moment the first completed draft is begun” (“Write Before Writing”, Learning by Teaching, 32).

So, with my students, I’ve been trying to linger here — to linger in the prewriting, the idea gathering, the information finding. I’ve been working to help students find the stuff of your writing to the point that, as Virginia Woolf said, the writing is “impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall” (“One Writer’s Canon – 1982”, Learning by Teaching, 50).

Today, I share just one foray into writing-before-writing. Information-gathering is a process, not a single activity. But this is one my students love and ask for again and again. While I call it a “silent seminar”, my seniors call it “writer’s telephone”.

Using Writer’s Telephone

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Mentor Text Wednesday: The Writer’s Bio

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.55.05 AMMentor Text: Author Biographies from various anthologies

Writing Techniques:

  • Biographical writing
  • Brevity
  • Voice
  • Writing for social media


It was last period, the day before Spring Break began. My Lit Focus class was writing or reading. They didn’t need me at the moment, so I did what I often do in that moment — I grabbed something to read. I headed to the bookshelf of poetry, knowing that I was planning to hit the poetry pretty hard with my Grade 10s, and after the break, we’d be in April, Poetry Month.

I grabbed Aloud: Voices From the Nuyorican Poets Café from the shelf, and headed for my desk. I grabbed some sticky notes to mark poems I wanted to add to my poetry notebook, and popped my feet up. Aloud had been a thrift store snag last summer, but I hadn’t looked in it yet. I flipped at random, and found a couple of beautiful poems.


Image via

However, there was less than an hour left before the holiday, and I was likely the least focused individual in the room. I flipped around the book listlessly, until it opened to the pages of poet bios, and this entry leapt out at me.


“Yo, Pauly! PAULY ARROYO, autentico nuyorriqueno, nineteen years on the scene Low Ball Slam Champ, icon, Black belt karate, black belt poetry.”


And I was pretty blown away by that. Continue reading